Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Blue flags

Most modelers know what a ‘blue flag” is. It is used to indicate people working in or around equipment, or some alteration or connection of equipment, so that the equipment should not be moved. Only the person who placed the blue flag can remove it, to avoid someone making an assumption that workers have left the area. In most railroad rule books, this is covered in Rule 26. In the 1951 Southern Pacific Rules, this rule reads in part as follows, and I quote:
     “26. When necessary to work under or about an engine, cars, or cut of cars for inspection, repair or servicing of any of them a blue sign reading ‘Men at Work’ must be displayed at each end unless standing on a spur track, in which event the sign will be displayed only on the end to which coupling can be made. If engine is attached to train, car, or cars, sign on engine end must be displayed on engineer’s side of cab of engine.
     “At night a blue light must be attached to each such sign as prescribed herein.
     “A sign may be removed only by the employee attaching it or by an employee authorized by him to remove it, and signs and lights must not be removed by any other person.”
     (I have abbreviated the rule in part, and have changed SP’s idiosyncratic spelling of “employe.”)
     For at least the last 50 years, these flags have normally been metal rectangles, of course blue in color, with appropriate legends on them. But if you go far enough back in history, the blue flag was literally a fabric flag. There happens to be an excellent photograph demonstrating this, from the Jack Delano photo series taken when he crossed the country in 1943. This view was taken at Santa Fe’s Corwith Yard in Chicago, and shows carman John Paulinski “blue flagging” a train for inspection (this is Library of Congress image  LC-USW 361-609).

     The blue flag is used also for tank car connections, since obviously a tank car being unloaded by gravity through its bottom outlet would be a bad idea to move. Many years ago (I hate to think how many), my very good friend, the late Larry Kline and I were preparing a joint clinic on “tank car basics,” as we called it. While out scouting train movements, we happened onto a tank car unloading spur, and C.J. Riley took the photo below. (We wanted to include this image in the clinic to show that we had done our field work.) That’s Larry on the left. This flag is a permanent sign, not a portable one, and is distinctly larger than the ones usually found on or in the track.

(For more about Kline, Riley and me, written before Larry’s passing, you might wish to read my blog post: . I also wrote an “in memoriam” post about Larry, including the above photo, and it can be found here: ).
     Back in the early 1990s I was doing a little railfanning around SP’s West Oakland yard, and watched a carman taking down a blue flag. I spoke to him about it, and when he saw I understood it and was interested, he gave it to me. I remember bringing it home (I then lived in Pittsburgh) on the airplane, simply putting it in the overhead bin. This was of course long before the security rigors we are familiar with since 9/11. Imagine trying to do that today! Here is a photo of that blue flag. It is 12 x 13 inches, and the staff has a hook for attaching to the cab side of an engine, as Rule 26 provides.

     Among the manufacturers of blue flag devices today is Western-Cullen-Hayes. You can look at their extensive line of railroad equipment, including such things as derails, bumping posts, and track tools, at their website (it is at: ). Shown below are three of the flags they offer. Shown at left is a device which is permanently installed, and is hinged so it can be folded down flat. At center is a flag with a clamp for attachment to a rail. At right is a flag with a pointed staff which can be inserted into ballast. (You can click on the image to enlarge.)

Note that there are three different legends on the three flags (different also from the ones shown in the preceding photos, above), just part of the possible range.
     Why am I presenting all these details? Because I want to add blue flags to my layout operation. I have operated on layouts which do include blue flags, and I wanted to do the same. Accordingly, I set out to see what might be a practical and convenient way to model blue flags. What I came up with will be shown in a following post.
Tony Thompson


  1. Back in the day I was a sport parachutist. Myself and two other jumpers boarded an Air Canada flight from Ottawa to Edmonton to participate in an air show. As we didn't want to load our chutes in the cargo hold we carried them onto the plane. Nobody batted an eye! Imagine...

  2. I was working in the Oakland Amtrak yard yesterday on my friend's ex ATSF business car and we set up the permanent flip up blue flag when we went outside to inspect some rust spots on the car side. The car's permanent home is the private car siding in the Amtrak yard. We did take it to LA on the back of the Coast Starlight two weeks ago.

  3. At BART we have blue "men at work" signs on the ends of each track in the yard and at night the car cleaner crew put out blue blinking lights on both ends of the train. There are no signs or lights for the train when work is needed on the mainline. The Central control gives the operator "work orders" to work around the train and no other equipment is allowed to pass. I wish I thought to take photos with my own camera--I took many with the work camera.